Nicol, Erskine (DNB12)

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NICOL, ERSKINE (1825–1904), painter, born in Leith on 3 July 1825, was eldest son (in a family of five sons and one daughter) of James Main Nicol of that city by his wife Margaret Alexander. After a brief commercial education he became a house-painter, but quickly turned to art. He was an unusually youthful student at the Trustees' Academy, Edinburgh, where he came under the joint instruction of Sir William Allan [q. v.] and Thomas Duncan [q. v.]. At fifteen he exhibited a landscape at the Royal Scottish Academy, and two years later two (one painted in England) and a chalk portrait. For a time he filled the post of drawing-master in Leith Academy.

After a hard struggle at Leith to earn a living by his pencil, he went to Dublin in 1846, and for the next four or five years taught privately there, and not, as is frequently said, under the Science and Art Department. At Dublin he discovered the humours of Irish peasant life, the unvarying subject for his brush for a quarter of a century. From Ireland, where he had a patron in his friend Mr. Armstrong of Rathmines, he sent two examples of this kind to the Scottish Academy exhibitions of 1849-50. In 1850 he settled in Edinburgh, where his reputation was already established. Most of the work he exhibited at the R.S.A. was purchased by well-known collectors like Mr. John Miller of Liverpool and Mr. John Tennant of Glasgow. He was elected an associate of the Scottish Academy in 1851 and a full member in 1859. His diploma work for the Scottish Academy, 'The Day after the Fair,' is in the National Gallery, Edinburgh.

In 1862 Nicol left Edinburgh for London, at first renting a studio in St. John's Wood, and from 1864 till the end of his painting career residing at 24 Dawson Place, Pembridge Square, W. Though he finished his canvases in Edinburgh or London, Nicol for several months of each year studied his Irish subjects at first hand in Co. Westmeath, where he built himself a studio at Clonave, Deravaragh. When his health no longer permitted the journey to Ireland, he abandoned Irish humble life for that of Scotland, which he studied at Pitlochry, where he fitted up a disused church as a studio.

Nicol contributed to the Royal Academy first in 1851, and then in 1857-8; from 1861 to 1879, there was only a break in 1870. Elected an associate in 1866, he joined the retired list after an acute illness in 1885. His portrait of Dr. George Skene Keith, which was exhibited at the R.A. in 1893, is dated the previous year, but he practically ceased to paint in oils in 1885. He excelled also in water-colours, and occasionally painted in that medium at a later date. One of his water-colours, 'Clout the auld' (1886), is in the Ashbee collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Although Nicol's humour was broader in his earlier than in his later canvases, he was always successful as a comic story-teller whose first-rate craftsmanship was never sacrificed to the pursuit of popularity. His mature drawing was generally sound and quick, and his colour was pleasing and sometimes rich and even subtle. After 1885 he lived in retirement, dividing his time between Crieff, Torduff House, Colinton, Midlothian, and The Dell, Feltham, where he died on 8 March 1904. He was buried in the burial-ground of his second wife's family at Rottingdean.

The jovial element in Nicol's canvases had no place in his life. His disposition was grave, shy, and reserved. Nicol was twice married: (1) in 1851 to Janet Watson, who died in 1863, leaving a son (Mr. John Watson Nicol, a painter) and a daughter; (2) in 1865 to Margaret Mary Wood, who survived him, and by whom he had two sons (the elder, Mr. Erskine Edwin Nicol, a painter) and a daughter.

Nicol's principal works, many of which were engraved, were: 'Irish Merry Making' (R.S.A. 1856); 'Donnybrook Fair' (1859); 'Renewal of the Lease Refused' (R.A. 1863), 'Waiting for the Train' (R.A. 1864); 'A Deputation' (R.A. 1865); 'Paying the Rent,' 'Missed it,' and 'Both Puzzled' (R.A. 1866, the last engraved by W. H. Simmons); 'A Country Booking-office' (R.A. 1867); 'A China Merchant' and 'The Cross-roads' (R.A. 1868); 'A Disputed Boundary' (R.A. 1869); 'The Fisher's Knot '(R. A. 1871); 'Steady, Johnnie, Steady' (R.A. 1873, engraved by Simmons); 'The New Vintage' (R.A. 1875); 'The Sabbath Day' (R.A. 1875, engraved by Simmons); 'Looking out for a Safe Investment' (engraved by Simmons) and 'A Storm at Sea' (R.A. 1876); 'Unwillingly to School' (R.A. 1877); 'The Missing Boat' (R.A. 1878); 'Interviewing their Member' (R.A. 1879, engraved by C. E. Deblois).

For the first volume of 'Good Words,' 1860-1, Nicol did three drawings. He is represented in the Glasgow Corporation Galleries by an oil painting, 'Beggar my Neighbour,' and in the Aberdeen Gallery by a water-colour. His oil paintings 'Wayside Prayers' (1852) and 'The Emigrants' (1864) in the Tate Gallery are poor examples. Nicol's portrait, by Sir William Fettes Douglas, exhibited at the R.S.A. in 1862, belongs to the Scottish Academy.

[Private information; Graves's Royal Academy Exhibitors; James Caw's Scottish Painting, Past and Present.]

D. S. M.